Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Adventure vs. Nature in Queenstown

Queenstown, New Zealand - naturally beautiful but rarely this peaceful.

First off, sorry for the long absence. I've been busy guiding a group of students and journalists from India around New Zealand for the past couple of weeks. It's been pretty full on, so no time for blogging. But I'm back now. Did you miss me?

One of the highlights of the trip for the visitors was, of course, Queenstown. New Zealand's adventure capital also happens to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Jagged mountains covered in snow, a stunning blue lake fed by even more stunning glacially fed rivers, and all nestled in the alpine surroundings of the Southern Alps. It's hard to argue with the natural beauty of the place.

However, as Queenstown's popularity has increased, so have the number of "adrenaline" activities that run commercially in it's most beautiful places. The Shotover and Kawarau Rivers are gorgeous settings with towering granite canyons and bright turquoise waters. But the peace you'd expect to find in such a setting is disturbed by the roar of jet boats tearing through at high speed, filled with shrieking tourists.
Other river spots have become the setting for bungy jumps. The historic Kawerau Bridge is picture perfect, but for 20 years has been the home of AJ Hackett Bungy - the first commercial bungy jumping operation in the world.
The mountains themselves are home to ski fields over the winter, and Queenstown is the apr├Ęs ski party capital of the Southern Hemisphere, so there isn't much chance of quiet reflection as you admire the peaks.

So has adventure tourism ruined the natural beauty of Queenstown? Or is it elitist to want to keep such a place in its natural state, knowing that this would prevent most people from having a chance to see it? It's a tough call, and one that has to be made in many areas of natural beauty.

In New Zealand there seems to be a tendency to "sacrifice" the most popular and publicized destinations, making them suitable to large visitor numbers. This is not only true of Queenstown, but also places like Milford Sound, The Tongariro Crossing, and Abel Tasman National Park. By offering easy access and modern facilities, tourists are chanelled into these few chosen areas to appreciate New Zealand nature.

That leaves the rest of the backcountry more or less untouched so that those of us who don't mind a bit of hard work in return for a pristine setting can hold onto some of the amazing scenery for ourselves.

I'm not saying that Queenstown shouldn't be touristy, or that tourism is a bad thing for New Zealand. In fact, I think tourism is necessary and good for New Zealand. But I can't help thinking, whenever I am in Queenstown, that it would have been wonderful to see the place 100 years ago when it was just a little village in the mountains.